Mary ‘Merciless’ McGee was a cheerleader in high school when she first discovered that her hometown of Gary, Indiana, had a boxing gym. Following a boy from her school, she stumbled into the space and was completely enamored by what she saw. 

Now, at 35-years old — after overcoming financial inequality, sexism, and not being taken seriously as an athlete– McGee is the International Boxing Federation’s Women’s Super-Lightweight world champion.

This weekend, she’ll be defending her title against Chantelle Cameron in her native home of London, England. Ahead of the match up, we had a chance to speak to McGee about her journey to finally getting the recognition she deserves. 

ESSENCE: What was it about boxing that first captured your attention?

The fact that I could hit people and not get in trouble for it. I have a level of aggression. I think everybody does. But it grows my competitive side. And boxing is a beautiful thing. It’s an art. I was able to let out emotions in the ring, get in shape, all of those things made me lean towards it. It’s like a beautiful dance that’s going on between two people. 

ESSENCE: As someone who’s never been in a fight, what does it feel like being hit in the face? 

You have to be able to take what you give. You’re going to be giving out some blows and some blows going to be coming back. Now, depending on how you react when them blows come back will let you know if you belong or not. With me, when I get hit, then I get aggressive. Like, oh, it’s on. I’d rather get hit when the fight starts because it’s like, ‘Cool, I know what her punches feel like. I know what this is going to be.’ 

ESSENCE: The sport is very male dominated. What did your family and friends think about you entering into this arena?

My grandparents never really liked me being a boxer. They didn’t agree with that. I didn’t get the support from them that I thought I should have. But it was against their religion, so I had to be understanding of that. 

ESSENCE: What were you most surprised to learn about the sport?

Loading the player...

When I first entered, I learned that they really didn’t pay women well. That was kind of discouraging for a little while but I had to put that behind me. It was hard to get a coach to pay attention to you as a female. Women’s boxing was like the bottom of the barrel. Promoters didn’t take it as seriously as they are today. They just thought it was something fun to put on the card. 

ESSENCE: What would you say the sport has taught you about yourself?

It taught me that I have a lot of strength and will to not give up when things get hard. It taught me perseverance and discipline. 

ESSENCE: How do you prepare for a match?

It’s a lot of running, eating right. A lot of rounds on the bag. You spar with men and women as you’re preparing. When I say it’s a strict schedule, it’s a strict schedule. It’s really disciplined. When you eat, when you wake up, when you go to sleep, everything is wrapped around getting ready for that fight. 

You make a lot of sacrifices. Even with me and the sacrifices I made with my son. Some days, we can’t hang out. Now, he called me and said he missed me. (Mary has been in London for nearly a week for the match this Saturday.)  He’s not used to me being away from him like this. 

How are you feeling about this particular fight?

I’m in shape. I trained really hard for this fight. I’m pretty confident that I can get the win. But I’m also not naive and understand that I’m facing somebody that wants to win and trained hard for me as well. I know in boxing, anything can happen. But I’m prepared for this fight. I did my very best. That’s what gives me the confidence. I know that I did everything that I could to win. 

The Cameron vs. McGee fight card will be broadcast exclusively on DAZN on Saturday, October 30. The main event with ringwalks begins at 5 pm ET/10 pm BST.